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Along the Thornapple River fEB 27 09

It takes thirty-five gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of maple sugar. That’s not the only thing I learned from Steve Hays at Maple Manor, but it’s one tidbit of insight I picked up when I stopped by his maple sugar refinery in Vermontville, Michigan. There’s more to tell, but I’m saving that for a different blog. I’m mentioning this just to whet your appetite, in the manner that one piece of maple sugar candy makes your mouth water for another piece.

I came across Maple Manor by pure serendipity while out exploring the upper  Thornapple River. My goal on this last day of February, 2009, was to find the headwaters southeast of Charlotte. I didn’t succeed, but I had a wonderful afternoon, and if I’d had another hour of daylight and a county map instead of a state map, I’m sure I’d have found what I was looking for.

The Thornapple is, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful river in southwest Michigan. All rivers have their lovely stretches, but the Thornapple has more of them than any other river I’m aware of in this part of the state. It’s a clean river, untainted by industry, flowing through mostly rural settings and just a handful of town on its journey from the south central part of the state to its junction with the Grand River in  Ada.

I’m familiar with the Thornapple as far east as  Charlton Park, where it broadens out into Thornapple Lake. From that point on, I’m in personally uncharted territory. Today, I decided to acquaint myself with the upper half.

Just north of the bridge in Nashville, the first road east takes you for a winding journey right along the riverside for maybe a mile-and-a-half before curving to the north. A fleet of swans—scores of them, perhaps hundreds—call this area home. The swans were patrolling the waters in company with a multitude of Canadian geese, the weed birds of the North.

Farther east, down a muddy country road, I caught up with the Thornapple again. But it was a wilder version of the broad backwaters in Nashville. It had narrowed down to a wide, ice-fringed ribbon bordered by cattail marshes and forested hillsides. I stopped to snap a few photos under the late afternoon sun. The day, which had begun with bands of cloud and a light sprinkle of snow, had transitioned into a flawless blue mirrored in the river’s serene surface.

Down the road a few more miles lay Vermontville. When you draw near the town this time of year, you’re apt to see steam rising from local maple sap refineries. These aren’t big, commercial businesses; they’re down-on-the-farm, family-run operations, bastions of Vermontville’s treasure, real maple sugar and maple syrup.

Impulsively, I stopped in at Maple Manor, purchased a half-gallon of syrup and a sampler of candy, and talked with the crew, who were sitting around the boiler. But as I’ve said, that’s a separate blog, so stay tuned.

Twenty minutes later, I was back on the road and headed for Charlotte. Southeast of town, along the backroads, I once again crossed the Thornapple. But it was nothing like the broad channel that flows through Middleville, and Caledonia, and Alaska, and Cascade. Here, in the midst of farm country and lowlands, a narrow stream threaded through a tangled, swampy woods. The sun’s last rays slanted through tree silhouettes, glinting orange off of icy banks.

The day had wound to a close, and I, too, was winding down. I snapped one last picture. Then, climbing back inside my car, I commenced the long drive home.




Written by Dave.